NZ Gardener - - Northland Plants - Seed Gallery (he­len­jea­ will be part of the Kerik­eri Open Art Stu­dios Trail ( held over Labour Week­end (Oc­to­ber 20-22) and now in its fifth year.

He­len Jean's art flows into her gar­den and her gar­den flows into her art. "They feed each other. I sim­ply have to gar­den to keep grounded."

Over the last 12 years, He­len has cre­ated a sub­trop­i­cal haven punc­tu­ated with sur­prise sculp­tures in her three-quar­ter acre Kerik­eri prop­erty. Na­tive ren­garenga nes­tle un­der ex­otic he­li­co­nias, and lush ligu­laria share space with chamae­dorea palms. No one plant is a stand­out star, but the jux­ta­po­si­tion of vary­ing leaf tex­tures, some struc­tural rep­e­ti­tion, and cu­ri­ous con­trasts in scale, weave to­gether a har­mo­nious whole that is a work of art in it­self.

He­len paints quirky im­ages of any­thing from me­tre-round ap­ples to hu­man-high paint­brushes that of­ten spill out in 3D be­yond the con­fines of their frame. They hint at her back­ground in pot­tery and her cur­rent pull to­wards sculp­ture.

“When I bought this place, I wanted to create a sculp­ture park,” she says.

"At the time though, it looked more like a rub­bish tip. It did have ma­ture avo­cado trees, a fig, some olives and some macadamias but other­wise it was an over­grown jun­gle with junk ev­ery­where. It didn’t even have a real drive­way. The first thing I did, after tak­ing skip-loads of rub­bish away, was to create a wind­ing path through the prop­erty to give the space, and me, some fo­cus and di­rec­tion.”

Apart from that, there was no plan – and no money. “The gar­den evolved grad­u­ally from bits of cut­tings or seeds I could get or was given. I worked as a pro­fes­sional gar­dener for eight years and I did any­thing plant-re­lated to earn an in­come to sup­port the prop­erty. I tried crop­ping tamar­il­los, ar­ti­chokes, lemons and even grew 75,000 beans one year! Never again.

“But the up­side was hav­ing ac­cess to other peo­ple’s ex­cess plant ma­te­rial, most of which was free and sim­ply needed lots of love and ef­fort. I re­mem­ber get­ting a small clump of mondo grass and break­ing it into sin­gle blade-sized bits to re­plant un­til I had the whole path­way edge.”

Gar­den­ing is nat­u­ral to He­len and runs in her blood.

“My Dad was a land­scaper, so I was dragged out­side with him from a young age to do the dog work, and both my grand­fa­thers were grow­ers. One grew pineap­ples in Aus­tralia and one was a gen­eral cropper.”

He­len’s in­de­pen­dent spirit was also ap­par­ent early on. “I left home when I was 15, bought a house at a young age, and I built my first vege patch us­ing kitchen uten­sils be­cause I couldn’t af­ford tools. There is no ‘can’t’. I’m a be­liever in life.”

It shows. He­len’s prop­erty has now ma­tured into a space drip­ping in vi­tal­ity. A sculp­tural stack of pipfruit stands sen­tinel by the pleated leaf din­ner-plate fig ( Fi­cus dammarop­sis). Straw­ber­ries ripen in­side a red dinghy long since re­tired from life at sea. Avo­cado trunks frame a paint­ing of pears on an out­door easel. Above them all, queen palms hold court.

Fur­ther afield, the orig­i­nal path­way wan­ders past frangi­pani, bromeli­ads, corokia, yucca and aloe, and around a bend to re­veal a cy­clo­pean-sized nest in which three mys­te­ri­ous mo­saic eggs rest. They look like they will hatch into some­thing big­ger than a dragon but smaller than a di­nosaur.

De­spite the lack of plan­ning, there is ob­vi­ous or­der. It’s not the straight line va­ri­ety, more the curved, cu­rated and some­times dra­matic artist’s eye va­ri­ety of or­der. He­len ac­knowl­edges she is dis­ci­plined and fas­tid­i­ous – and driven. “I have to do it. I’m creat­ing what I want around me here and there’s so much I’ve yet to do. This is my world. It’s where I live, where I create, where I imag­ine, where I heal, where I tune in, where I get in­spired, and where I work. My art is self-taught. I started as a pot­ter be­fore my medium mor­phed into oil paint­ing and sculp­ture, with more com­bos yet to come, and a year of booked com­mis­sions ahead.

“Creat­ing this gar­den gives me the freerange time and space for seeds of new imag­in­ings to land, to in­cu­bate and to germinate into the next art­work.” It is fit­ting that when He­len opened her gar­den­stu­dio-gallery space to the pub­lic a few years ago, she named it Seed Gallery.

The gar­den and the cre­ativ­ity here draw peo­ple.

The stu­dio is un­der the house which was orig­i­nally a pack­ing shed, then had an in­car­na­tion as a boat­builder’s shed, and at some stage was part chook-house. The gallery be­gan life as an old garage. “The grad­ual trans­for­ma­tion of the place is very sat­is­fy­ing to me, but more im­por­tantly, it’s soul food for oth­ers when they visit. We’re hun­gry for places of nat­u­ral beauty and up­lift, and in them we can re­mem­ber who we are and what’s im­por­tant. I’ve come through some dif­fi­cult times in my life and I know that cre­ativ­ity, plants and the phys­i­cal­ity of gar­den­ing help us heal.”

He­len Jean with her fi­bre­glass com­pos­ite sculp­ture.

Out­door art.

A peg takes a tuck out of the lawn.

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